Cruise on USS The Sullivans

2008 Cruise on USS The Sullivans DDG-68

by Robert Frost


It was June, 1961, when I reported aboard the USS Fletcher (DDE-445) home ported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii as its brash, new 22-year old supply officer. The Fletcher was my first choice from a billet list of 120 possible assignments. My incentive, other than living in Hawaii, was my limited knowledge of the ship’s rich history and I wanted to be part of it.

It was May, 2008, when I reported aboard the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) in Norfolk, Va. as a somewhat weathered 68 year old, selected by the USN  as a “Distinguished Visitor” , to sail with The Sullivans to New York City for the “Fleet Week” celebration.

Although offered other ships that were going to partake in the program, The Sullivans was, without question, my first choice. I knew the history of the Sullivan brothers and the USS Juneau and the role that my first love, The Fletcher, played in this epic. In a way, by signing on to sail on The Sullivans, it was kind of like closing the loop for me. Because I knew the history of this ship, it was a moving and emotional experience.

So its 47 years later and I have to confess, today’s Navy is so different than the Navy I knew… with one big exception… the sailors still intensely love their ship as I did (and still do) The Fletcher. Yet, to be brutally honest the ship I served on, the Fletcher, was more like an old tug boat compared with QE II (or in this case The Sullivans.) Then again, having sailed on The Sullivans made me that much more appreciative of my Fletcher experience.

To begin with, The Fletcher had no fore and aft inboard passageway. So when I wanted to go from the supply office to the galley, both on the main deck, in heavy weather, it was, to say the least,  somewhat risky business (as was for the cooks bringing chow down to the crew’s mess two decks below.)

Air conditioning, (particularly in Subic Bay, the Philippines), what was that? Salt water showers on The Sullivans? Don’t be ridiculous! DDG-68’s water makers could probably produce enough fresh water every day to bathe all four “tin cans” in DesDiv 251 (that was the Fletcher’s division). Today’s Navy runs on turbines not steam.

Speaking of The Sullivans’ air conditioned, totally computerized engine room, it was so clean; you could literally eat off the decks. Trying to find a spot of oil or grease on the engineers’ well tailored blue, one piece overalls was like The Fletcher looking for a nuclear submarine somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

What is most dramatically different between the Navy I knew and today’s fleet is the diversity of the crew. Probably 25 percent of The Sullivans’ crew are women… officers was well as enlisted…and there is no such thing as “minorities”, Every one, regardless of race , religion or background has the same opportunities, share in the same responsibilities and pulls his or her weight equally, even when handling hose during an “UNREP” (underway fueling) or working dock lines when getting underway.

Since I was the Supply Officer on The Fletcher, I naturally spent much of my time checking out The Sullivans’ supply operations including commissary, ship’s services and disbursing. The computer: let me put it this way, in comparison I fought my “war” with a bow and arrow compared with The Sullivans guided missiles. Today’s bar code system (just like the supermarket) gives The Sullivans’ “ SupO” ( I was referred to as “Pay” short for PayMaster) exact and almost instant information on all consumables and repair parts needed aboard ship.

There is virtually no paperwork. I think I must have signed by name on DD1149s or DD1150s (requisition forms) about 400,000 times during my tour. And because everything is recorded in absolute loving detail, clearly marked and stowed in a rational system, inventorying and pulling parts when need  is so simply and efficient. I could have cried with envy.

Remember pay day? It was a most dreaded experience for me, counting and recounting cash, and then the long lines on the mess decks. I was personally responsible down to the penny. In today’s Navy there is no such thing as cash… every one 
the is paid by check. ( I think my base pay as a LT(jg) in 1962 was something like $4,500 a year compared with about $50,000 a year today. But then again, my ship’s store sold a pack of smokes for maybe a dime and a candy bar was a nickel.)

Even in the ship’s store, there is no cash. Sailors today use pre-paid money cards. Speaking of the ship’s store operations, on The Sullivans there are vending machines that sell canned soda and snacks (using your money card.) “24/7.” Confession time for me: If you remember on The Fletcher the soda machine on the mess decks “made” drink for you from syrup and carbonated water for a nickel. Theoretically, the soda machine was suppose to dispense 3 ounces of syrup for each drink; to make more money for the “ rec fund”, I had the machine set for 2 ounces so we sold more drinks per gallon of syrup. But we had some great parties to make up for it.

Also, in today’s Navy, what can be sold in the store is strictly regulated both as to item and price. I kind of fancied myself as a Sam Walton-type which is why the “rec fund” during my time had so much money… and I was often in trouble because of my wheeling and dealing.

The other area that is “standardized” is meals. As I understand it, the Navy sets the menus for everyone in the fleet. While the officers still eat in the wardroom, their meals come from the mess decks and are prepared by “food specialists” (the “CS” designation is gone as is “DK”.) Now, I’m not saying that The Fletcher served gourmet meals, but I’ve got to say that Chief Baker and the Fletcher’s cooks could probably teach today’s Navy a thing or two about really good eating.

In the final analysis, though, it’s all about people—from the Captain and XO down to the seaman “deuce”, Today’s Navy, in my opinion, is more professional, better motivated and better prepared for its job than it was 48 years ago. The enlisted ranks seem to have a clearer picture of the opportunity, whether as a career in the Navy or preparatory to a career in civilian life. There is less grousing and complaining than I remember when I was on active duty (even though as I was told early on, a “bitching” sailor is a happy sailor.)

Oh, one last thing about my recent assignment to The Sullivans. One of the most important aspects of my mission, as I interpreted it, was to tell and retell the story of the USS Fletcher and its role in the history of the USS The Sullivans. I wasn’t there, of course, in November, 1942, but even 20 years after it happened, the naval battle of Guadalcanal was part of the Fletcher’s heartbeat even when I served aboard her.

Earl Faubion was kind enough to send me a copy of J. C. Wylie’s 1986 letter describing in incredible detail the events of that epic night. After The Sullivans CO read it, he thought it should be mandatory reading for all officers, chiefs and E-1 as a lesson in leadership and history.

Like I said, I wasn’t there, though after reading CDR Wylie’s letter (he ultimately became a Rear Admiral) as well as James Grace’s book “The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal”, I was there at least in spirit… and it was also the reason why this experience aboard the USS The Sullivans will be one that lives with me for many, many years to come.

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Frost

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